Field diary: Matsudo-Mabashi

The house we inspected was in Matsudo, the nearest station Mabashi on the Joban Line, but the Joban line that connects with the Chiyoda subway line, not the one with the express stops that goes all the way to Tohoku. It was an eleven-minute walk from the station, and since Mabashi is 22 minutes from Nishi Nippori on the Yamanote Line, it makes it quite a convenient location with regards to Tokyo. This is significant since the house price is ¥12.8 million. That could be considered quite cheap; or expensive since it was built in 1975: 65 square meters of floor space comprising two floors on 75 square meters of land. There was another house on sale 15 minutes from the station, of approximately the same age, slightly smaller, but that one cost only ¥6.2 million.

The difference is that the one we’d made an appointment to see had been, in local housing parlance, “reformed.” The photos on the realtor’s website looked promising: all-natural wood floors (not veneer), a completely new kitchen and bath, tastefully exposed beams in the two upstairs bedrooms. Reform has become a buzz word for previously-owned single-family homes since everybody knows most Japanese houses built before a certain year are crap in terms of quality of construction and materials (which year depends on your standard), so if the owner has carried out “reform” it means it’s retained at least some of its value. But we’ve found that most reform jobs are perfunctory, the bare minimum. Practically speaking, it’s better in those cases not to have had any reform at all since the work done rarely conforms to a potential buyer’s taste. People in the frame-of-mind of buying a previously owned house would probably prefer spending less money on the property and then remodeling it themselves to their own specifications.

The house was at the end of a short “private street” (meaning pieces of the street were probably owned by the adjoining occupants) and stood out immediately. Its boxy contours betrayed its age but the exterior paint job was brand new and very well done: pure white with an enamel finish over mortar; window sashes and “amedo” storm shutters in dark brown; the second floor balcony, which extended around the southwest second floor corner in black. The tile landing to the front door had been redone and the door itself refurbished, not replaced. There wasn’t much to be done with the landscaping since there wasn’t any to speak of. Though the house, legally, could only occupy 50 percent of the land, the slivers of space separating it from neighbors to the south, east, and north were rubble-strewn and the parking space to the west would barely accommodate a mini-car.

The interior was even more impressive. The wood floors were even better-looking in person, maybe because we were so used to seeing such a house without them. The walls had the sort of white wallpaper we usually don’t like, but in this case the owner had broken the white up with an occasional panel of dark gray. The first floor consisted of an open living-dining-kitchen area that was a little more than the equivalent of 12 mats in size. Track lighting on the ceiling. An island counter-sink setup. The toilet was tankless and the bathroom had a stand alone sink and a separate medicine cabinet bolted to the wall, not one of those cheap-looking vanity combos that most builders buy. The bath-shower room was small but had been retiled completely. Upstairs the “oshiiire” in the two six-mat bedrooms had been converted to closets and the “attic” space exposed (thus the beams) so that the ceilings were high, making the rooms feel airier and brighter.

Despite the thoroughness of the remodeling job, there were still some things that would need work. All the windows were the original opaque type, and we wanted transparent, double-paned windows. Consistent with the age of the house, there were few electrical outlets so more would have to be installed, in particular in the dining area, which had none at all. However, there were some drawbacks that couldn’t be remodeled away without gutting the house. The stairs, for one thing. They were extremely steep and narrow, and probably dangerous at night if you, presumably, slept upstairs and had to use the toilet, on the first floor, in the middle of the night. When walking up or down, you had to move sideways to get a better purchase.

More significantly, the house didn’t “feel” quite as solid as it looked. This may have been a trick of the light or sound, but in any case it appeared that the reform was completely cosmetic, meaning no work had been done on the structure of the house. The first floor had a damp atmosphere, indicating that there wasn’t much separating the floor from the foundation. Since it was originally built in 1974, any quake-proofing work would have had to be done subsequently, and since the salesman didn’t mention any it’s obvious the owner didn’t include structural reform in the remodeling job. Given last year’s temblor, if any quake-proofing had been carried out the salesman would have definitely mentioned it, since that’s a huge selling point right now. He wouldn’t tell us what the landlord spent on the remodeling job, but he showed us photos of another house that had been reformed that didn’t look as good and he said that job cost ¥3.28 million, so apparently this one cost more. When we mentioned the structural aspects, he dodged the issue by pointing out that the owner had, in accordance with the law, taken out indemnity insurance, so if after we moved in we discovered a flaw that he should have informed us of, we could apply for compensation or even sue for damages. But such insurance usually covers things like leaky roofs. If there was an earthquake and the building was damaged because it wasn’t quake-proofed, we couldn’t sue for that, as far as we knew. The owner, he said, had never lived in the house. It was an investment–he rented it out–which explained a lot. Though it’s likely he isn’t going to get more than what he paid for the place, he was probably able to rent it out and get a consistently good return, so spending more on the reform job made sense, but there were still limits. He only spent enough so that he could unload it, and likely the place would sell quickly to a young couple of limited means and liberal tastes.

On balance, the reform job and the location of the property made it something of a bargain, but it wasn’t something we would buy. Having the structure inspected would alone cost half a million yen and any work to make the place structurally sound would be extensive and expensive. We both liked the house, but that was because in this particular price range everything we had seen was just awful. This was at least attractive, but the care put into it was only skin deep. Besides, we wanted more light.


  1. Ἀντισθένης · February 14, 2012

    Ha, not only is most ‘reform’ here cosmetic, so is the entirety of most homes, foundation to roof. I’d buy the one at half the price for a few reasons:
    – it’s half the price!
    – it’s not much smaller or further
    – neither is an ‘investment’ in Japan, but a place to live and a financial loss
    – Japanese renovations are an irrelevance
    – get the cheap one and do the minimum renovation to make it comfortable for you
    – you could lose the whole value in a quake (better to lose half)

    As for Mabashi, that may not be so bad. There are trains that depart from Matsudo, meaning you have a chance at getting a seat there if you transfer. There are certainly none after that (I get on at Kameari).


  2. Miko · February 15, 2012

    It seems like quite an attractive place to me, except that it’s just so darned big! (And if you don’t like stairs, then you’d better stay away from the Netherlands, where half the population seems to reside in two-storey brick townhouses with incredibly narrow staircases … in spite of this they look pretty happy to me.)

    What is your dream home, you two? What are you looking for in a place? Are you sure that you are not bringing your North American sensibilities to the search? Bigger isn’t always better, after all. And as you already know, buying a house should not be regarded as an investment in this land. What are you really looking for?


    • catforehead · February 18, 2012

      We had no problem with the size at all. If we seem overly picky it’s because we know whatever we buy will be our home for the rest of our lives. As this blog probably makes clear we are fine with renting, but being freelance writers we have no guaranteed income for the future, so owning is an advantage in that we can at least feel secure in the fact that no one can kick us out if our cash flow suddenly stops. But at the moment it hasn’t, so we’ll continue to look until we find something that suits us perfectly, and this one didn’t. Besides, for the purpose of this blog, the more skeptical we remain about Japan’s housing situation, the better for everyone.


  3. Miko · February 18, 2012

    You are not overly picky but picky is good for me because I can easily put in a good word for you guys at my favourite shrine. I have a habit of dropping in on my way to work to say a little prayer for my friends, and I’ll be sure to add you two to the list. (Don’t laugh! It sounds as if I’ve gone batty, but apparently my entreaties have led to several success stories with exam results and job hunts and the like … and I’m not in the least bit religious, couldn’t give a toss about
    Shinto. But hey, every little bit counts, right?)

    I am very similar to you in that I have always been in freelance-type occupations, and I have also always been deeply concerned with issues of survival and security, exacerbated by single parenthood. In a sense, living through the Kobe quake of ’95 – in which my rental apartment was destroyed, along with *all* my worldly goods and (very nearly) my sanity – put paid to the notion of security as I knew it. Nowadays I’m more concerned with building human capital and so-called “kizuna” than anything else.


  4. Jeffrey · March 6, 2012

    Why is it that you seem to be limiting your search to Chiba-ken? It’s not without reason that people living in Tokyo call if Chiba-ragi.

    Have you looked “across the river” in Kanagawa? Having lived there myself, I know it’s much nicer than the areas in Chiba closest to Tokyo.


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